Friday, December 14, 2007

Rendering Authenticity

I've been struggling through the new book “Authenticity” by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, and I've been wondering why I've struggled. It's not a badly-written book, and I remember reading and liking some articles adapted from their earlier book, “The Experience Economy.” I'm also interested in the idea of authenticity (link to prior post). But nonetheless, I've read the book in fits and starts. It's been a chore.

As I was reading it this week, an idea hit: It's not just this book. I would have trouble reading any book that tells companies how to “render authenticity” through their products and services. (You can find a dictionary definition of the word authentic here. The third and fifth definitions most closely match what we're talking about in this post.)

The term “render” brings to mind soap factories--heavy processing, reformulation.

Authenticity is or should be natural, intrinsic, emerging from the essence of the thing. It's also, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder. Facebook has squandered some of its authenticity by its recent attempts to monetize. MySpace's is long gone. This is probably true of many internet startups. In growing out of hobbies or cult experiences to real businesses, they surrender authenticity. This is natural and maybe not a bad thing.

Large companies trying to conjure authenticity is a fool's errand, in my mind. One example of “perceived authenticity” cited by the authors is the HOK-designed baseball park, such as Camden Yards in Baltimore and its brethren. Camden Yards, when built, was authentic—a one-of-a-kind, new “old-style” ballpark. But when similar HOK designs emerged in Texas, San Francisco, Cincinnati, etc., it became merely a template. A good experience? Yes. Authentic? No. If you want baseball authenticity, go to Fenway or Wrigley.

I recall a Jay Leno comedy routine that he performed on David Letterman many years ago. It went something like this:

“Have you seen the new item they have in the supermarket? Soft cookies in a package. Now, this is interesting. Fresh cookies are soft. Stale cookies are hard. Now the food companies have discovered a technology that allows them to make stale, soft cookies.” Spoken this way, packaged soft cookies are not only funny, they're unappetizing.

Authenticity is a fresh cookie. “Rendered authenticity” is a stale, soft cookie.

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(Bonus: the Jay Leno routine mentioned above. The way the food company discusses the soft-cookie idea seems like how a meeting on rendering authenticity would go.)